05 April 2015

The European Perspective on the Western Narrative

The European Dream: How Europe's Vision of the Future is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream

by Jeremy Rifkin

copyright 2004 Tarcher/Penguin

While I do not doubt that some due to the present European situation would dismiss this book outright as already outdated and obsolete, I think that would be a mistake.

A distinction must be made between the European project as a whole and the present troubles surrounding the Eurozone.

It's worth remembering the European Union and the concept of European citizenship were formalized by the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. The 28 countries which comprise the EU must be slightly differentiated from the 19 countries of the Eurozone, those which utilize the Euro currency which was implemented in 1999.

Some would argue the EU has overall been a good idea and a successful one while at the same time criticizing the specific economic framework of the Eurozone and the way it has effectively wedded the currencies and economies of the 19 countries currently using the Euro.

Others would be critical of the whole project and yet few would wish to wholly abandon the European consensus and Inter-European project regarding a common market that was birthed in the 1950's.

The Euro has proved troublesome and issues that were fissures before have been become large fractures exacerbated by the economic tensions. Rifkin doesn't shy away from the problems, even during what seemed to be a European Spring in the early 2000's. He deals with immigration and the demographic problem, but overall is optimistic. One would be curious to know if over a decade later he retains the same positive outlook. The rise of the European Right is (I think) something unforeseen though the signs have been there for several decades. There's something particularly shocking as we gaze upon some of the last survivors of the Holocaust while at the same time hearing rhetorical echoes from the dark past. But today it's mostly Muslims who are the target, and if Jews are targeted it's mostly by Jihadis within the disgruntled immigrant community.

The problem of Muslim immigrants was already known and felt prior to the 1990's, but many have been surprised by the way intra-European mobility and migration has affected and disturbed numerous societies.

This coupled with uniform regulations dictated by Brussels, has driven some to see this next phase of the European Union as culturally destructive and placing the whole post-European project at risk.

Aside from those issues which can't be ignored, Rifkin crafts an interesting narrative antedating the Enlightenment and bringing European culture and intellectual endeavour up to the post-War period. Some of his discussions regarding issues like conceptions of 'time' provide some good intellectual fodder.

Even though we share a heritage, Europe's story is one very different from the American Experience. We all know that, but Rifkin is to be praised in how he develops and explains some of these differences.

Europeans and Americans have different senses of freedom, property and the individual vis-à-vis the state and society. For many Europeans the modern state is a counter to the historical monarchical system and is there to protect from all forms of power and monopoly. Freedom is more about universal access rather than autonomy as it is most commonly understood in America. In crowded, resource limited Europe, property is not tied to liberty as it is in the American consciousness.

He does well in explaining the effect of the frontier on American thinking and of course rightly cites and discusses FJ Turner's "Frontier Thesis". The frontier and the mentality that went with it shaped how American's view liberty, personal space and resources. It's also played into deep and pervasive cultural angst and notions of individualism. When an area's resources were tapped out or it became too crowded, we Americans simply moved West. Personal dreams and quests for fulfillment transcended historical roots or senses of obligation. The seemingly endless available land and resources created a mentality that is still deeply embedded in our cultural psyche.

It could be argued that as the concept of the frontier came to an end in the 1890's, the story of the United States and Manifest Destiny continued as American 'interests' and actions began to expand beyond its borders. The Continental Empire would soon become Intercontinental. This would be realized to a greater degree in 1945 and smashing all historical precedent in terms of scale in 1991.

And yet for all of America's growth, power and influence it is beset by deep and some would argue terminal social cancers. It's an unsustainable model and the stresses of maintaining such a model will in the end be self-destructive.

Rifkin believes the European models of society, economics and the state are in fact sustainable and exportable. The Europeans he believes will outlast the United States and become the bearers and transmitters of the European legacy.

History is of course more complicated than any unified vision and it's unlikely to play out the way Rifkin sees it. The ghosts of the 20th century cannot wholly be left behind and Europe may indeed go through very rough times in the near future and be forced to revisit a history she thought had been dead and buried.

Yet, the European model is appealing and not a few Americans able to escape provincial thinking when visiting Europe for the first time are perplexed at a society which in some ways seems more stable, peaceful, generous and affluent than their own United States. I had a similar experience and it made me start asking questions and to this day I constantly vacillate with regard to the issues. There are definite positives to the European model and American Individualism is especially problematic in the context of Christianity. That said, the mindset born of collectivism and social awareness can also work strongly to undermine a necessary Christian antithesis.

But again, times are changing. Economic woes will amplify the complex of social tensions and the relationship with the American Empire is a complicated one. Sometimes America is Europe's friend and seeming protector and on other occasions it would seem the United States and its British proxy work against the grand European project and its interests.

Many Americans fear internationalism and globalization but in reality these are often mechanisms for the powers that be to expand their control. Power brokers can bring almost anyone on board if the business deal is appealing enough and the Europeans with their advanced scientific and high-tech prowess have done well in the era of globalization. There is almost a mutual love/hate relationship and often a reciprocal if not begrudged respect.

It was probably beyond the scope of an already sizable book but I would have liked to have seen a bit in the way of discussion regarding European bitterness at America's moral and idealistic claims and what is often perceived as a Post-War occupation and attempt at soft colonization. This work is more focused on sociological and philosophical aspects rather than political narratives.

Yet, I cannot help but find it interesting to consider that not a few Europeans, perhaps especially the French consider the US claims of liberty and democratic freedom to be something of a sham and the United States to be little more than a hypocrite, a hegemon dressed in democratic attire. The US sold out on the principles of Enlightenment and the 1776 Revolution and embraced power paradigms in the form of Empire and unbridled corporate power. The US social model is bankrupt, corrupt, immoral and harmful to both its own citizens and the world it exploits.

There are many Europeans who would like to see the US back off and downsize its European footprint. They don't trust the US and with good reason. There's a long, mostly buried and quite unpleasant history regarding CIA and Gladio activities within Europe and in some cases moves were made against NATO allies and leaders. The so-called Strategy of Tension has produced a geo-political and economic schizophrenia regarding relations with the United States and the issue of security. Many Europeans and not just the intelligentsia are fully aware US hegemonic interests supersede any notion of democratic alliances or ideals or the supposed values from which they flow.

Rifkin's book is a far cry from perfect. Christians will understand many points in a different manner and not always agree with his narratives or interpretations. Christo-Americans, those that have confused the Kingdom with a narrative regarding the United States will have a much harder time with the book and yet it is they more than anyone else who would probably benefit from an examination of this work and the challenges posed by it.

It's a book I will probably revisit and reference from time to time.